Historical Context of the Event

1997 by J. Gregory Payne Ph.D.

In his 1968 Presidential acceptance speech, Richard M. Nixon spoke of the widespread division existent within the American society, and pledged his support in the attempt to unify the country.(4) The president-elect later chose for his administration's theme the message that he had noticed on a sign during the campaign-"Bring Us Together."(5) Unfortunately, unity was to be sought only as the United States experienced further aggravation of the divisions plaguing the country. Student activism became the norm, as Students for a Democratic Society, Weathermen, and other campus groups vocalized the deficiencies they perceived in the American system: racism, pollution, capitalism, imperialism, and the most serious anomaly, the war in Vietnam.

Many activists believed the only recourse was revolution,(6) but this extreme view was not predominant among the nation's young. The Nixon administration fanned their growing discontent into vehement hatred. Vice-President Spiro Agnew, the spokesman for many Americans, suggested that police-and authorities treat student demonstrators as enemies. In a speech made in April of 1970, Agnew advised police to ". . . just imagine they (students) are wearing brown shirts or white sheets and act accordingly." (7) The result of this bombastic rhetoric was further polarization within the troubled society. Angry over the military draft, and vocally discontent with policies of the Nixon administration, many students demanded an end to the war and the impeachment of Agnew Nixon. The verbal warfare spiraled as President Nixon was quoted by the national press as referring to student demonstrators as "bums." (8)

April 30, 1970, marked the beginning of a tragic sequence of events in America. President Nixon surprised the nation with his televised announcement of the decision to send American troops in support of the South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Thousands of previouslyuninvolved students viewed this move as an expansion of the war, and joined in protest of such action.(9) Campuses and cities throughout the nation experienced violence.(10) Strikes were advocated by student groups. Rumors were prevalent that campuses were to be besieged by outside agitators, and law agencies chose to call in additional help in their efforts to control the situation.(11) Such was the case in Kent, Ohio, as Mayor Leroy Satrom requested additional assistance in his effort to control the campus unrest at Kent State University. National Guardsmen were called and eventually ordered on to the Kent State campus. On Monday, May 4, 1970, the news focus shifted from Cambodia to Kent where a barrage of gunfire from the guns of a group of National Guardsmen left four students dead and nine others wounded.

The reaction to what happened at Kent State is indicative of the turbulent time in which it occurred. Public opinion pollsters found the immediate national reaction to be one of absolving the Guard and placing blame on the students for the tragedy at Kent State.(12) This reaction appalled many individuals who viewed the Guard's action as examples of "excessive force" or ~premeditated murder."(13) In attempting to piece together the story of Kent State, writers from differing backgrounds, and advocates of various ideologies investigated the same event, but came up with differing accounts of the tragedy. Some adopted a multicausal explanation, and placed blame for the incident on the students, outside agitators, the guardsmen, and the administration.(14) Others proposed the view that certain guardsmen huddled together prior to the shooting and possibly conspired to shoot the students.(15) There were those who viewed the action as murder by the National Guard,(16) while others singled out the Kent State University administration, and an elite minority of radicals at Kent State as responsible for the turmoil and deaths at Kent.(17) More recent publications identify the political/rhetorical context as an important factor in precipitating the tragedy.(18) Recent information from the FBI Report released by the National Archives supports the theory raised in the most recent work on Kent State that the federal government was involved in the May 1-4 incident and its aftermath. Today, after ten years of exhaustive study and litigation, the Kent State incident is still characterized by lack of agreement among authoritative agencies and individuals as to what happened, who or what was to blame, and why the shootings occurred at Kent State.

Kent, Ohio, and Kent State University

In early 1970, Kent State University in Ohio was a relatively unknown institution of higher learning drawing over eighty-five percent of its student body from the state it served.(19) The typical students of Kent State were within driving distance of their homes, located in the industrially rich section of Ohio. They were, for the most part, the sons and daughters of middle-class workers who had labored hard to provide their children an opportunity denied them-a college education.(20)

Founded as a normal school in 1910, Kent State University experienced massive growth during the period 1950-70; the 1950 enrollment of 5,500 climbed to 21,000 by 1970.(21) Complementing the university's growth, the population of the city of Kent grew from 4,500 in 1910 to 27,600 by 1970.(22) While expansion benefited both the city and the university, it was accompanied by a gradual strain in relations between the two communities, a phenomenon frequently present in a university area.(23) The mutual respect and admiration once shared by the two communities gave way to suspicion and mistrust. High-rise dormitories replaced the rooming houses run by Kent citizens. Kent families, economically dependent on the industries of the Kent-Akron area, were confronted with students advocating a new life style.(24) Many citizens believed the typical Kent State student refused helpful paternal advice, ignored his personal appearance, and did not appreciate his country or the educational opportunity provided by his parents.(25)

A growing dissatisfaction with the state of domestic and international affairs preoccupied many Kent State students in 1970.(26) Many were seriously troubled by the war in southeast Asia, and viewed the townspeople as members of Richard Nixon's "silent majority," resistant to any change, blindly patriotic to any elected leader's whims, and more upset by the use of four-letter words than the killing and maiming of human lives in Vietnam.(27) It should be pointed out that not all Kent Staters were critical of the government's actions at home and abroad.(28) In the student body there were those who advocated working within the system to induce change, as well as those preaching total revolution against government, but there were also a large number of students at Kent State who were more concerned with receiving a poor grade than with events of the world. A survey taken in the spring of 1970 revealed the following opinions within the Kent State student body.(29)

78% favored retaining ROTC;
63% opposed President Nixon's Cambodia decision;
47% favored immediate and complete withdrawal from Vietnam;
54% supported increased Vietnamization and gradual withdrawal.

These data indicate that in 1970 Kent State was not characterized by a "radical" student body. Prior to the late 1960's, Kent State's most exciting events had been the panty raids of the 1950's and the annual traditional "mud fights" which accompanied the arrival of spring.(30)

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Campus Unrest at Kent State University Prior to May, 1970

In the fall of 1968, a meeting was held by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), its initial meeting at Kent State.(31) The Ohio campus was visited by such notables as Bernadine Dohrn, the national SDS inter-organizational secretary, and Mark Rudd, Columbia University SDS chairman.(32) Success of the organization on the traditionally conservative campus was limited.(33) The conclusion of Rudd's speech found only twenty people present in the University Auditorium,(34) and at the height of its popularity, SDS membership never reached more than one percent of the student body.(35)

Prior to the shooting incidents in 1970, Kent State experienced two major confrontations. In November, 1968, protesting the Oakland, California Police Department's "vendetta" against the Black Panther party and claiming oppression by the university administration of radical groups, the SDS and Black United Students (BUS) staged a sit-in to disrupt recruiting of possible candidates by the Oakland Department.(36) This action was met with the university's threat to seek charges of disorderly conduct against those assembled. Six hundred Blacks walked off the campus to protest this action by the university, and the administration responded by admitting it had "insufficient evidence" in the matter to press charges.(37) SDS viewed this action as a victory and a weakening in the university's power. However, leaders of BUS dissolved their pact with the leaders of the SDS, whom they viewed as being caught up in a fantasy world of revolution in which victory was equated with having one's name in print.(38)

The spring of 1969 witnessed another clash on the Kent State Campus.(39) SDS members lated demands, including the abolition of campus ROTC, and attempted to present the list to a meeting of the Kent State University's Board of Trustees held on the campus in April. The initial SDS confrontation in 1968 had resulted in many Kent State students openly opposing the organization and its goals.(40) Consequently, approximately two hundred-fifty SDS members were met not only by university police but also by a large crowd comprised of approximately seven hundred anti-SDS students.(41) Fighting broke out between the two student groups. This action resulted in the university's suspending two leaders of the SDS and five others, and revoking the SDS charter as an official campus organization.(42)

The final confrontation of the school year occurred in April, 1969, as SDS members attempted to "open" the suspension hearing of a member charged for his involvement in the previously mentioned skirmish.(43) Confronted by hundreds of anti-SDS students and university police, the IDS leaders slipped into the Music and Speech building where the hearing was in progress. The Ohio State Patrol was eventually called in, fifty-eight people were arrested, and two SDS leaders weere charged with inciting to riot and assault and battery.(44)

Following this occurrence, the university experienced some minor conflicts involving members of the SDS at Kent State University. Campus leaders opposed to the organization fabricated dories that the organization was being infiltrated by "outside agitators," a theme which Eszterhas and Roberts, authors of Confrontation at Kent State: 13 Seconds, note was further propagated in several interpretations of the May 4, 1970 shooting incident.(45) Those left in the Kent State SDS "underground" attempted to convince the student body that the ban on the organization was unfair and unjust. Unfortunately for the activists, the message fell on deaf ears; as Eszterhas and Roberts reported, "for all practical purposes, SDS at Kent State was dead."(46)

A student referendum concerning the Music and Speech building demonstration revealed some contradictory results. By nearly two-to-one margins, students favored the suspensions, were against reinstatement of the charter, but were opposed to the university's pursuing criminal charges against those involved.(47) Clearly, the students at Kent State were not supportive of the SDS and its actions. Equally revealing was the fact that fewer than half of the student body cast ballots in the referendum.(48)

The fall of 1969 found the university administration keenly aware of the possibility of further violence on the campus. Nonetheless, while many Kent State students participated in the National Moratorium Day against the war, others were apathetic concerning politics as they focused their attention on the outcome of the World Series.(49) Prior to the happenings in May, 1970, the programmatic product of Kent State's radical element was limited to being the first school in the nation to sponsor a "No Bra Day."(50)

The spring quarter of 1970 brought little political activity since Earth Day was basically a failure at Kent State, and an anti-war march was composed of fewer than one percent of the student body.(51) The most political event of the year occurred in April when Kent State was visited by Jerry Rubin who drew a crowd of approximately one thousand.(52) Rubin's rhetoric included repetitive cliches and harangues associated with the radical movement. The most controversial segment included a passage in which the speaker advised students to buy guns and "kill your parents." This understandably frightened many citizens of Kent, but according to the editor of the campus newspaper, The Kent Stater, most of those assembled regarded Rubin as a "wildman" and placed little credence in his message.(53) With the end of the year approaching, the mood on the Kent State campus was drastically different from that of the turbulent spring of 1969. It was also much different from that found on other Ohio campuses. Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) and Ohio State University had experienced heated anti-war demonstrations involving National Guardsmen.(54) There was activity at Kent State in late April, but of a more traditional type; nearly three hundred students participated in the annual mudfight.(55) This mood changed on April 30, as President Nixon announced to the nation his decision to send American troops into Cambodia. The following days' events would result in Kent State University becoming a topic of discussion across the United States and throughout the world.

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[Notes 1 through 3 are to be found at the end of the section "Chronology."]

Return to reference 4

4. New York Times, November 7, 1968, p. 21. Adopting the format of the 12th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, page numbers for newspapers will be omitted with the exception of the New York Times.
5. Ibid.
6. See Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts, confrontation at Kent State: 13 Seconds (New York: College Notes and Texts, 1970), pp. 45-70.
7. Spiro Agnew, "A Speech to Florida Republican fund Raising Dinner," excerpt in Peter Davies, The Truth About Kent State: A Challenge to the American Conscience, (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1973), p. 1.
8. New York Times, May 2, 1970, p. 10.
9. New York Times, May 1, 1970, p. 38.

Return to reference 10
10. Ibid, New York Times, May 2, 1970, pp. 1, 9, 14.
11. New York times, May 2, 1970, pp. 1, 9, 14; see also Eszterhaus, 13 Seconds, pp.71-87.
12. Newsweek, May 25, 1970, p. 30. A Newsweek poll reported that in placing blame for the shootings at Kent State 10% blamed the Guard; 58% blamed the students; and 31% were undecided.
13. I. F. Stone, The Killings at Kent State; How Murder Went Unpunished (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), pp. 15-32; Spiro Agnew remark that action by the Guard constituted "murder," David Frost Show. Metromedia Television, May 7, 1970, transcripts of tape recording included in the Kent State University yearbook, Chestnut Barr (Spring, 1971).
14. Eg., James A. Michener, Kent state: What Happened and Why? (New York: Random House, 1971).

Return to reference 15
15. Peter Davies, The Truth About Kent State: A challenge to the American Conscience (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1973).
16. Eg., Stone, The Killings at Kent State.
17. The Special Grand Jury Report of Portage county (Ravenna, Ohio, October, 1970).
18. J. Gregory Payne, "a Rhetorical analysis of Selected Interpretations of the May, 1970 Kent State Incident." (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1977).
19. "Kent State: the Search for Understanding," Akron beacon Journal, and Knight Newspapers, May 24, 1970; excerpts reprinted in I. F. Stone, The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), p. 106.

Return to reference 20
20. Ottavio M. Casale and Louis Paskoff, eds., the Kent Affair. (Geneva, Illinois: Houghton Mifflin company, 1971), p. x, xii: The President's Commission on Campus Unrest (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970), p. 235.
21. Casale, Kent Affair, p. x.
22. Ibid., p. xi: Robert M. O'Neal, No Heroes, No villians (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1972) pp. 4-5.
23. O'Neal, No Heroes, p. 5.
24. Casale, Kent Afair, p. xi.

Return to reference 25
25. Casale, Kent Affair, p. xi; O'Neal, No Heroes, p.5, 6.
26. Casale, Kent Affair, p. xi; President's Commission, p. 287; Joe Eszterhaus and Michael Roberts, Confrontation at Kent State: 13 Seconds (New York: College Notes and Texts, 1970), p. 11.
27. Casale, Kent Affair, p. xi.
28. President's Commission, p. 234; Casale, Kent Affair, p. x: Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 7-23.
29. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 295.

Return to reference 30
30. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 9; "Search for Understanding," in Stone, Killings at Kent State, p. 105.
31. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 48.
32. Ibid., p. 47-48.
33. Ibid., p. 48.
34. Ibid.

Return to reference 35
35. Ibid., p. 50.
36. President's Commission, p. 235.
37. "Search for Understanding" in Stone, Killings at Kent State, p. 106.
38. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 57.
39. President's Commission, p. 237.

Return to reference 40
40. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 15, 62.
41. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 162.
42. Ibid.
43. President's Commission, p. 236.
44. Ibid.

Return to reference 45
45. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 67.
46. Ibid.
47. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 16.
48. Ibid.
49. Ibid., p. 17.

Return to reference 50
50. Ibid., p. 20.
51. Ibid.
52. President's Commission, p. 237.
53. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 21-22.
54. O'Neal, No Heroes, p. 24.
55. Eszterhas, 13 Seconds, p. 22.

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